Utah basketball: Michelle Plouffe emerging from a long shadow
Michelle Plouffe laughed nervously at the comparison.
She's never run from former Ute All-American Kim Smith's legacy, or the immense shadow Smith left over the Utah women's basketball program. But the two have more than a little in common.
Both are Canadian. Both gained gigantic reputations as do-everything forwards. The two were teammates at the 2012 Summer Games in London. And while Smith is the best player in school history the only woman to have her number hanging from the ceiling at the Huntsman Center Plouffe is rapidly catching up as she enters her senior season.
Plouffe is already the ninth-leading scorer in school history with 1,566 points. She's second all-time in blocks with 127. She ranks in the top five in defensive rebounds, rebounding average and scoring average. She's the single-season record holder in rebounding and field goals attempted. Yet, for all of her accomplishments, and the fact that she begins the 2013-14 as a preseason All-American, it is coach Anthony Levrets who may have paid her the biggest compliment of all.
"Without Michelle, I probably don't have a job," Levrets said.
He may just be right. If Plouffe hadn't put a cap on her freshman year with a game-winning jumper against BYU in the Mountain West Conference tournament, Utah wouldn't have advanced to the title game. If Plouffe hadn't dropped 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds the next day against TCU, the Utes wouldn't have surprised everyone and won the MWC tourney to advance to the NCAA Tournament. And if that hadn't happened, Levrets, the interim coach at the time, may not have been given the job permanently.
But that's Plouffe. She's taken on a big role seemingly since the day she stepped on to campus. And heading into this season which starts next Friday at home against Denver she'll have more responsibility than ever, especially with her sidekick Taryn Wicijowski out for the year with a torn ACL.
"It's going to be a little different," Plouffe said. "My entire career, there's been another upperclassman to help with the leadership role. Now, I'm the senior, so that's a different feeling. We have a young team, so I'm going to have to be vocal and lead by example."
A Canadian hoops family
Hockey is the sport they play in Edmonton, Alberta, but basketball is cheaper. All you need, really, are sneakers a pair of shorts and a shirt. Maybe a knee brace here and there.
That was just fine with Laurie Plouffe, who had one daughter go on to play Division I ball at Washington, and precocious twins in Michelle and Katherine. The two would tag along with their older sister to practices. They would watch the way she shot the ball. They learned, and they applied it to their own games.
Most of all, they garnered the love for basketball at an early age.
"They demonstrated remarkable skill pretty quickly," Laurie Plouffe said. "I certainly knew they had great potential. They were athletic, they had good fundamentals and they were leaders from a pretty young age."
Next month, Michelle and Katherine who plays for Marquette will square off in Las Vegas. Katherine is a preseason All-Big East selection. Michelle jokingly says that she and her sister won't be allowed to guard each other. The reunion promises to be emotional.
"I've told my teammates that no matter what happens, we have to win that game," Plouffe said. "Me and my sister have always been pretty competitive with each other growing up, so I'm definitely looking forward to it."
Their leadership attributes developed quickly. And by the time the two entered the ninth grade, they had grown significantly, on and off the court.
It's something that helps them to this day.
Can they make it?
Getting back to the NCAA Tournament seemed easier before Wicijowski went down about a month ago. Now, more of a load than ever will fall on Plouffe's shoulders. Levrets said he will play the 6-foot-4 senior at every position other than point guard this year.
She's more than used to it. Plouffe averaged 17 points and 9 rebounds a game as a junior. She's a two-time all-Pac 12 selection, and she's one of the best all-around players in the conference and the country.
WNBA mock drafts have her going anywhere from the late first round to early in the second. She's projected to be the first player from Utah to make the pros since Leilani Mitchell, who was drafted by Phoenix in 2008 and played last season for the New York Liberty.
"I would love to leave a legacy that Kim left," Plouffe said. "It's not something I focus on. But with who I am, and how hard I work, maybe it comes along with it. It would be great to have my jersey hanging in the rafters."
And make that shadow disappear once and for all.
Michelle Plouffe file
From • Edmonton, Alberta
Vitals • 6-foot-4 senior forward
Family • Twin sister Katherine is an All-Big-East selection who plays for Marquette
Accomplishments • Is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection; played on the 2012 Canadian Olympic team; is a preseason All-American this season and a projected WNBA draft pick.
One for the books
Utah senior Michelle Plouffe is rapidly ascending in the Utah women's basketball record book and is on track to be the school's all-time leader in several categories when she leaves after this season:
Scoring • Ninth with 1,566 points.
Rebounding • Sixth with 865.
Blocks • Second with 127.
Scoring/rebounding • Projected to be the just third Utah player to score 2,000 points an grab 1,000 rebounds in a career.
O Denver at Utah
Friday, 8 p.m.
Note • For recap of the Utes' exhibition game Friday, see Page D9